It’s that time. Time for fires. Time also for hot toddies, mulled wine and the rest of all those wonderful winter delights.
One dark rainy Saturday afternoon, while reading through one of my diaries from years ago, when I was living in Greece, I came across the following wine story. I had overheard it in a kafeneon, where a group of loud Greek men were enjoying a chat about wine making. Knowing the growing interest in both the making and drinking of wine in our environment, I thought I’d share it with those who enjoy one or both of these activities. The following is a rough translation of that story plus information I found in the ceramic museum of Iraklion, plus bits and pieces of information found here and there. I wrote it all up like a play, because in Greece, sitting in a kafeeneon and observing the locals is like attending a play.
The wine from Crete dates back some five thousand years. Crete with its blood-dark earth marked by history. Crete with its high waves perfumed with herstory. Crete with its wonderful light. Light which makes its magic.
This wine story from Crete involves the experiences of a sailor, a priest, a merchant and a wine-grower.
THE WINE OF KING MINO
We will be leaving. The fig trees have borne green buds and the time has come to depart. From its curved keel to its raised prow our vessel seems new because my ten rowers have scraped it, pumiced and caulked it zealously with tarred oakum. The leather bordered papyrus sails have been sewn up. The deck, battered by the last storms has been made anew from cypress wood and the men have battened down the cargo of painted amphoras. They contain wine on its way to the Egyptian Pharaoh“.
Soon the crew will sacrifice one of these amphoras to the Gods. We will pass our island to the south and will aim straight for the mouth of the Nile. See this wine pitcher adorned with Argonauts? It was baked especially for the King of Thebes.
When the buds come out and our ships fly away like a great flock of sea gulls, then Crete’s very soul is breathing upon the world. Our civilisation spreads its wings as its exports the word of its artisans, its peasants and wine growers. Our great wines add to Minos’ glory: But our product charms him and I never fail to pray to Osiris: ‘Oh Master of the vine of the wine, of songs, love and frivolity, give us the gift of a safe journey.’
And yet the Cretan God of wine is called Dionysus Zagreus. He returned from Aria with his band of Satyrs, Bacchantes and, especially, with sacred knowledge. He improved our stocks and nobly brought the musts to life. He imparted a sacred character to the wine growers work and solemnised the gesture with which we raise a glass of wine to our lips, since as we drink, we raise our eyes to heaven and look Dionysus in the face. Then his divine joy begins to flow in our veins. With one mouth full the fiery lord of harmony teaches us about the far away wisdom of the winds, the summer abuzz with insects, the warm long evenings when wine makes us forget the icy indifference woven about us by winter. Bury your desire in its dazzle and your head will extol the source of happiness and the love of god.
It took the love of God to make men admit that the vine stock can be improved by mutilating it, that aggression sweetens the harvest to come that, once again, hope is borne out of sacrifice. Pruning the vine is a primordial gesture through which men passes from barbarity to culture. With it we begin to dominate this most demanding of mistresses. We must prime it in winter, hoe it in March, strip leaves away in the spring. In the summer, when spikes of sun light impale the grape, burn it and make it pregnant with light, we must paint it with Ixos, that bitumen which protects it from the busy insects in the warm season.
If the vine is thirsty in August, the wine will be hearty. Be prompt wine growers, clean your cellars, wash your vats, your press, your instruments, your amphoras with sea water. Then burn some scented herbs. Wine hates bad odours.
When we come to mid-August, when the great heat makes the air vibrate on the horizon then we must gather the grapes. This is a hard time for the grower, but joy is in his heart. He needs to climb the side of the mountain the whole day long. Our vines go as high as three thousand feet. We leave the grapes in the sun’s embrace for several days so they may seep and begin their fermentation. Then we give them shade for five nights so that the must will not become overheated. Our God Zagreus is always touchy. He is also sensual and likes to be trodden in his earthen vat under the feet of the young workers to the sound of the flute, his favourite instrument. The must is then squeezed out and the first cup of the first juice, the very source of wine, is offered as a libation to the Gods, because this is where we begin the most mysterious of processes.
When the liquid begins to boil, it is because Dionysus has put his finger in the vat. The liquid becomes murky, forbids all approach by creating evil smells. And the sacred juice becomes wine.
At times we get a liquor worthy of the table of King Minos, but at others we only have a mediocre drink which must be spiced with vine leaves, cypress branches, huckleberries, Iris, Rush Roots, Myrrh, Saffron, Cedar bark, Vervain, Bitter Almonds, Aloes, Cloves, Pepper, or sea water brought back by the sailors from the open sea and allowed to rest for several years so as to loose its bitterness.
We also sell Mulse, made by adding honey to the must. This yields a wine as sweet as Pan’s Flute, but also as lascivious as a Bacchante.
Our Minoan wine often blends the perfume of myrrh, beloved of the Gods, with animal musk and the fleshy scents of summer. It is a sensual wine.
And that is where my function begins. In the warehouse of the Palace Temple Knossos, the steward has been watching the contents of the jars for months. When he feels they have reached their peaks, he has the wine poured into the amphoras, so it may be more easily transported. They are stopped up in cork, covered in pitch, mud plaster. Then I put my seal on them so that everyone will know I am responsible for the quality. It is a certificate of origin. Once it is shut up, the wine can keep for as long as ten years.
Petrus Spronk is a local artist and author who contriubtes a regular column to the Wombat Post